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3 themes to look for this Oscar season

By COLIN COVERT | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: November 23, 2017

Sure as the day after Thanksgiving marks the start of Christmas shopping for major retailers, the holiday season contains an alternate marketing blitz in the film world.

Hollywood has a two-pronged goal during the next seven weeks. As usual, it wants to put bodies in theater seats. But on a more ambitious level, it’s preparing to unveil some of the year’s finest, most prestige-oriented features.

While this system is not without flaws, it’s better than making customers line up in the snow for Black Friday shoving matches over discounted TVs.

With the Academy Awards approaching March 4, movie moguls are working full speed to win voters’ attention, hearts and minds. More than ticket sales, idiosyncratic Oscar winners such as “The Hurt Locker,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “No Country for Old Men” offer a long-after-release life­span while upholding the lofty ambitions of the art form.

The question now facing the academy and film fans alike is: Who should define which films, or performances, or concepts, will be included in awards season?

Last year, following two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite protests, the 6,000-member Motion Picture Academy invited an influx of 683 new participants - significantly younger and more diverse - to better represent filmmakers of color and other emerging talents.

These new voters could yield some thought-provoking contenders. Here are three watchwords that may govern how the season unfolds.

1. DIVERSITY CAN BOOST SUCCESS

When “Get Out” premiered in February, its filmmakers had only modest expectations for what seemed to be a small horror film from a first-time writer/director.

But its unconventional plot, twisting the interracial romance theme of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with dashes of hypnosis, body horror and upper-class racism, plugged into a national debate about multicultural America. It became a cultural phenomenon and surprise hit, catapulting writer/director Jordan Peele to film industry stardom, and raising the film’s status as a genuine Oscar contender.

On a smaller scale, the funny/serious culture-clash romance “The Big Sick,” starring and co-written by Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani, has won multiple top prizes at U.S. and international film festivals. It could pick up larger trophies to go with its unexpected box office success.

There should be special amounts of awards attention paid to several excellent, inclusive holiday releases as well.

- In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” opening Nov. 22, Denzel Washington plays an idealistic Los Angeles civil rights attorney drawn into a crime that threatens his life; Carmen Ejogo co-stars as his morally centered romantic interest.

- Pixar’s animated “Coco” (also Nov. 22) honors Latin-American culture and folklore in its look, sound and abundant spoken Spanish without subtitles. The vocal cast stars newcomer Anthony Gonzalez and Benjamin Bratt.

- Laurence Fishburne, who launched his film career at age 14 as a young Navy patrol boat crewman in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” recalls the jungle of Vietnam in Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” a retired servicemen’s buddy comedy co-starring Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell that opens Friday.

- And Mexican director Guillermo del Toro combines music, science fiction, romance and prejudice in “The Shape of Water” (Dec. 8), which features a standout role for Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.

2. PERSONAL BEHAVIOR AFFECTS PUBLICITY

With a growing list of powerful men in the film industry accused of sexual harassment (and worse), screen talent has been badly tainted by off-screen scandal.

Last year the slave-revolt drama “The Birth of a Nation,” a much hyped prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, was considered a challenger for a best picture Oscar until director, co-writer and star Nate Parker was revealed to have faced a rape charge 17 years earlier as an undergraduate. Although he was acquitted, his film suffered serious consequences. It received no Oscar attention and performed far beneath expectations at the box office, and Parker has had no film work since.

That narrative appears to be even more relevant this year, with accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein, screenwriter/director James Toback, Amazon Studios head Roy Price, actors Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Piven, comedian and actor Louis C.K., director Brett Ratner and more.

The impact on Spacey’s career has been significant. Netflix has suspended production on the sixth season of “House of Cards.” Ridley Scott’s drama “All the Money in the World,” opening Dec. 8, features a transformative performance by Spacey as financier J. Paul Getty that once seemed to be a lock for a best actor nomination. Now Spacey’s pursuit of a third acting Oscar has been essentially suspended, too.

3. DISABILITY CARRIES NO STIGMA

Playing a disabled character has long generated Academy Awards, with examples too numerous to mention, from Colin Firth’s stammering King George VI in “The King’s Speech” to Hoffman’s autistic genius in “Rain Man.” It’s hard to believe that this year will be any different.

Still, it’s rare for an Oscar to go to actresses playing a mute character, with Patty Duke’s performance as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” Marlee Matlin (to date the only deaf performer to have won the award) in “Children of a Lesser God” and Holly Hunter in “The Piano” being the only winners to date.

That will probably change this year. After earning a supporting nomination for “Blue Jasmine” in 2013, British actress Sally Hawkins has earned major awards buzz for her leading role as a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with an extraordinary beau in “The Shape of Water.” It’s the kind of technically polished and socially sensitive work that filmmakers appreciate and want to share with holiday audiences - a sensitive slice of feel-good entertainment in a season that is about nurturing the goodness of your heart.

These nine films promise an escape from the same-old this season:

“Darkest Hour”: Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) creates a British political counterpart to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Within days of becoming prime minister, Winston Churchill faces a government divided over a war against Germany for which it is poorly prepared, or a peace treaty not much different from surrender. Gary Oldman is remarkable as Churchill, completely transformed by flawless costuming and prosthetic jowls, and Kristin Scott Thomas is dramatically and comically outstanding as his loyal yet independent-spirited wife. (Nov. 22)

“Wonder Wheel”: Kate Winslet stars in this 1950s working-class drama, her first film by Woody Allen, who has guided his leading actresses to six Academy Awards. She plays a wife and mother working as a waitress on Brooklyn’s Coney Island boardwalk, frustrated by her failed dream of becoming an actress and by her lummox of a husband (Jim Belushi), who operates the flamboyant Ferris wheel. She hopes that a new chapter might open as she begins a summertime affair with a young lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), who narrates the film. (Dec. 1)

‘The Shape of Water’: There’s something for every fan in this delightfully elaborate fantasy from director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro. The story is a mind-bending braid of early 1960s spy thriller, love drama and creature feature, with Sally Hawkins playing a cleaning lady at a secret government facility who falls for a very unusual fellow captured in South America. Since she is mute and he is a real fish out of water, their moving romance becomes the very definition of recognizing the differences in others and loving those dissimilar qualities all the more. (Dec. 8)

‘I, Tonya’: Early viewers praise this mockumentary tragicomedy as a stinging, Scorsese-style take on one of the biggest scandals in U.S. sports history: corruption in the world of competitive female figure skating. Margot Robbie stars as Olympic hopeful Tonya Harding, famous as the first woman to successfully jump the triple axel in international competition, and later as a player in a scheme to smash the leg of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Allison Janney plays Tonya’s abusive mother, and Sebastian Stan her equally rude husband. (Dec. 8)

‘Quest’: Jonathan Olshefski’s study of a decade in the lives of an African-American family in Philadelphia has been a popular documentary across the festival circuit. The Raineys describe themselves as “progressive and proud” despite experiencing poverty and deprivation on screen in v豩t石tyle. Following the Rainey family and their neighbors through social transitions that evolve through the Obama presidency until late last year, it has been praised as a moving portrait of people counting their blessings and paying them forward even when the chips are down. (Dec. 8)

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’: Picking up where 2015’s “The Force Awakens” left off, Episode VIII of the series is unknown, beyond the screening rooms attended by executives from Disney and Lucasfilm. But social media are abuzz with what fans are thinking, guessing and anticipating. Will the identity of the last Jedi be revealed, and if so, will there be a surprise twist? Will Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) embrace the dark side? How will the late Carrie Fisher’s final appearance as General Leia be handled? Why do Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo (Adam Driver) swing their light sabers in exactly the same way? There is only one way to find out, and it involves purchasing a ticket. (Dec. 15)

‘Downsizing’: From his feature debut with “Election” through his most recent movie, “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne has taken a whimsical look at average American men entering middle age with a sense of being puny players in the big game of life. He takes his first futuristic look at those ideas in this fantasy about technology that actually shrinks them to 5 inches tall. Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play a married couple dealing with a dubious sales pitch that people who become physically little turn out to be economically super-sized. The ensemble includes Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern. So yeah, you could be a little excited about this one. (Dec. 22)

‘Phantom Thread’: You never quite know what Paul Thomas Anderson has in mind until his films arrive in theaters. You often don’t know for weeks afterward as his latest one-of-a-kind opus evolves through your consciousness. That sense of mystery is one of the reasons why his work is so highly anticipated. The facts known about this mysterious love story: Daniel Day-Lewis plays a celebrated fashion designer in 1950s London; he develops a relationship with a strong-willed woman whom he lifts above her working-class origins; his protective, controlling sister moves to control the situation. What Anderson has shared in trailers feels like a dark suspense film, a costume drama directed by Alfred Hitchcock. (Dec. 22)

‘The Post’: In the 1970s, the Pentagon Papers revealed what had actually happened in the escalation of the Vietnam War. The Nixon White House, which had long lied to the American public about the war, fought to prevent the release of this Defense Department study, and to prohibit the Washington Post from publishing it. Steven Spielberg gives the story of First Amendment freedoms and Supreme Court melodrama the kind of big-star attention he used in “Lincoln,” with Tom Hanks as Post editor Benjamin Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham. (Dec. 22)

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